The deal with plays

I live near Basavanagudi in South Bangalore, hardly 6 km from the city’s best theatre Ranga Shankara. In the other direction, a (relatively) new auditorium which plays host to several promising plays (KH Kala Soudha) is even closer. There are times when we consider going for a play at one of these locations. To date, however, I’ve been to a performance (can’t call it a play) at KH Kala Soudha once. The only time I’ve been to Ranga Shankara was five years ago, back when i was in college.

I think one of the reasons for this is that I can never muster the necessary incentive to go watch a play. A large number of plays, as I understand, hold nothing much of promise in the stories that they tell. I’m not much of an actor, and don’t have an eye for fine acting which I want to discover. Yes, sometimes the way some stories are told is fantastic, and this is even more so when the play in question is telling a known story (the one play I’ve watched in Ranga Shankara was a Harivansh Rai Bachchan interpretation of Hamlet; where they use Yakshagana dancers for the play-within-a-play, and that was a fantastic way of telling the story).

Still, the thought of having to sit there in one place, without doing anything that might distract the performers, focusing all my energies on the performance, for the “option value” that there might be something really insightful in what the performers are trying to convey is daunting. With widespread sponsorship from governments and corporates, most plays are very reasonably priced, but the attention they demand can put me off.

And then I wonder if the reason I don’t like plays so much is because they’re rehearsed, that everything goes according to a particular script, that every move of the actor has been choreographed! The way plays are structured essentially requires discipline on part of all the actors, and the play could sometimes be seen as just an exhibition of discipline! I must mention here that I have even less patience for other more obvious exhibitions of discipline such as parades.

I read that the Rangashankara ¬†festival is coming up soon, and I do hope I can get myself to at least check out a few plays (especially since I’m now fairly rich in terms of time). However, I must say it will take a lot of convincing on your part to make me come watch your play. If you say “we’re performing Shakespeare’s Romeo and juliet” I’ll say “why should I come watch you when I can read the play?”. But if you tell me that there’s a story that you want to say, which you’re going to say in a particularly unique way, then I might be interested.

Telling Known Stories

I’ve always been skeptical when people have told me that they are telling known stories in their play. Whenever someone tells me something like that, I start wondering what the big deal about it is. About why anyone would want to watch a play that tells a story that they already know. A story where everyone expects the next move that the actors make, the next thing the actors say. I wonder what thrill the actors get when they know that they are contributing little to the audience in terms of story value.

But then, after watching a mindblowing rendition of the Ramayana by kids of Navkis Educational Centre (I was there at the invitation of a friend whose cousin studies in the school and played a major role in the production) last weekend, I must confess that I had been wrong. I must admit that there does exist tremendous value in telling known stories. In fact, from a pure artistic perspective, it is preferable to tell a known story.

There are two parts to every production – the story and the way the story is told. And unless the story is something absolutely mindblowing, or has enough twists and turns and thrills to keep the viewers always on the edge of their seats, it is the latter part that makes or breaks a production. Yeah, of course you need a reasonable plot, a good storyline, but if you look at all the great movies, books or stage production, the best part has been the way that the stories have been told.

So when you are telling a known story, it gives you more scope to experiment in terms of the way that the story is told. You get more freedom to do your own thing, knowing fully well that the viewers know what is happening. You can twist and turn the dialogues, or even dispense with them (as the Navkis kids did). You can leave things unsaid, knowing that the audience will fill in the gaps. In short, you can just freak out with the production, in a way you never can if the audience doesn’t know the story.

Of course it is a double edged sword. Because you are not adding any value in terms of the story itself, the way you present the story can make or break the production. So unless you are confident that you are telling the story in a unique way, you risk tomatoes.

Another thing I was thinking about during the performance on Saturday was about the commercial viability of productions such as this. It was a truly amazing performance by the kids, and for a school play you don’t need commercial success. The thrill of being involved (and each one of the 500+ students of the school was involved in the production) is enough incentive for the players to do a good job. The question is about scalability, replicability and commercialization. I don’t have any answers yet. If you can think of something, let me know.